By Inas Younis, New Age Islam
September 12, 2013
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche bemoaned the destruction of Spanish Cordoba, calling it the one truly authentic civilization to have mastered the art of living physiologically and spiritually well. Modern day historian Chris Lowney, corroborates those observations- no lamentations required. The famous Muslim poet, Muhammed Iqbal, May have been the first to expose the similarities between 12th century Muslim writer Hayy ibn Yaqzan, and Robinson Crusoe, but It was Chris Lowney who draws the most superlative analogy of all, in his book titled, A Vanished World, where he parallels the experiment which was medieval Spain to the experience of the post modern world.
By chronicling the lives of the many personalities who contributed to Medieval Spain’s evolution and eventual demise, Mr. Lowney proves, that If survival is a fundamental human motivation, then it is survival of our identity as much as it is survival for its own sake, which determines the course of human history. And the safeguarding of religious identity was determined by the degree to which Islamic Spain was willing to accommodate a religiously and intellectually diverse environment. If history repeats itself, it does so only to restate the lesson which Medieval Spain has taught us, and one which we can never afford to overlook- that tolerance and diversity breed prosperity.
The Golden age of Spain was an age where merit and reason prevailed, where religion transcended doctrinal beliefs, and where Jews were afforded security and opportunities which encouraged the emergence of the brightest Jewish intellectuals of that time. History is, as Mr. Lowney brilliantly illustrates, the art of selective perception. No one can absorb every aspect of the past. But which aspects we choose to highlight and which we choose to ignore can mean the difference between war and peace. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our first introduction to the character of Spain’s chosen patron saint James.
The legend of James begins with two characters in history who are bound only by a common name, but who signify the two personalities which brought and tore Spain apart. One is James, the Muslim killer, who becomes the icon of religiously grounded hatred, and who is known for his brutality. The other is James the pilgrim, known for his kindness and spirituality. These two diametrically opposed images are projected on to one persona. Over time the memory of Saint James assumes the characteristics which best suits the collective psyche and political ambitions of his followers.
Against the backdrop of this increasingly abstract character we become acquainted with a host of other personalities, each either faithful to the image of a pilgrim or a killer. But the individuals most worthy of notice are those characters who remained faithful to the vision projected from their own liberated minds. They were the men, whose contributions from math, science, and philosophy remain with us to this day. These were the men of religion and reason. Whenever the two have met, it was because of the courage of individuals like, the Jewish Maimonides, who sought to prove the compatibility of beliefs and human reason in his work, Guide for the perplexed, and Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, whose brilliant work, The Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, reconciled the relationship between rationale and faith.
Upon the departure of Averroes, another intellectual giant and spiritual prodigy, Ibn Arabi, enters into the scene. It is in thanks to him that Sufism, which was rooted in the Islamic East, flourished in the Spanish terrain. And upon his death, we witness the birth of Judaism’s greatest mystic, Moses de Leon.
Mysticism served as the channel through which all three faiths could appreciate the shared wisdom that transcended the trappings of their respective doctrinal beliefs. However, the mystics did not leave much impression on their irreligious counterparts, who used the name of God to justify their perpetual quest for domination. Mr. Lowney, while glorifying the former, gives equal representation to the men of war in order to illustrate one important theme; that misunderstandings and fictions threatened Muslim Spain more than facts.
Such fictions fuelled the imaginations of ambitious characters like Eulogius, who because of gross distortions in his understanding of Islam , made it his life’s mission to promote and document a movement of Christian martyr activists who would deliberately blaspheme the prophet Muhammad , and risk death. This act of sacrifice, although a failed measure, was the means by which radical Christians of the past tried to counteract the disintegration of their faith. For along with achievement and prosperity came the inevitable loss of their religious identity. Oddly enough the Christian Marty activists of yesterday failed for the same reason the Muslim martyrs of today are failing. Eulogius’ coreligionists were simply not inspired to resist a culture which captivated and encouraged the best and highest within them. If such movements had been successful we would never have learned about the Pope Sylvester, who learned math from the Muslims, or of the Jewish general Samuel ha Nagid’s, who rose in both power and wealth under Muslim rule. And no one would dare imagine studying human civilization without honouring the doctor and philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna) whose exhaustive treatise on medicine was used for over five centuries.
And although each religion made its respective contribution to its sister faith, Mr Lowney makes a courageous observation, which the reader, while tempted to dismiss, would be hard pressed to ignore. For the truth remains, that the basic core beliefs of each faith are in fact - not reconcilable. We are either saved or not. We either believe Jesus was the Messiah or we do not. We either acknowledge that Muhammad is a messenger of God or we do not. And in grappling with this reality we are forced to appreciate that, while beliefs may diverge, the translation of those beliefs, no matter what they are, remain the same for every faith tradition. In the end we are left with the overriding and non-negotiable teaching which underlies every religious tradition. That in order to succeed in a secular world, we have to adhere to the most fundamental of all sacred precepts- to love God above all things and to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
Inas Younis is a freelance writer residing in Kansas. She has written for Muslim Girl Magazine and her work was featured in the anthology Living Islam Out Loud. She contributed this article to New Age Islam.